Follow awfulagent on Twitter

About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


I often tell people that the publishing industry has been dying for as long as I’ve been in the industry, on toward 25 years now.  Hence, the fact that it isn’t yet dead suggests that the impressions on any given day are not in fact correct.

Today, lots of people are saying that the industry is dying on account of the e-book.  My own impression as we are most of the way through “royalty season,” is that the industry is clearly changing, and almost certainly not dying of e-book.

There are incredible amounts of e-books selling right now, incredible. The growth over just a few short years is truly stunning. Simon Green’s Nightside books are now selling about as many copies in e-book as in print. Charlaine Harris’ Harper Connelly books are selling more in e-book. E-books now represent around 10% of her lifetime US sales of 20 million units even though they’ve only been around for a few years in her 30 year career. This is a good business to be in.

For both authors and publishers. Authors make more money from e-books. I’m making this bold unqualified assertion to make up for all of the people making the other assertion, that authors lose money on every e-book. In truth, you can make both. Authors can lose $2 every time somebody buys an e-book instead of a hardcover, but they can just as easily make $2 for every four mass market paperback sales that turn into e-books. Charlaine Harris has huge-selling hardcovers, there’s a hit to her income as those sales move to e-book. Jack Campbell has six Lost Fleet books never published in mass market, there’s a gain every time those sales move to e-book. So I shouldn’t say that authors make more money from e-books, but nor should anyone claim the opposite, that the e-book is the end of authors, of writing, of culture as we know it.

[You can look at 2010 hardbacks reported sold in PW. Pick any reasonable guess for how many of those sales migrated to e-book from 2010 to 2011, multiply by $2, and you're looking at a big chunk of change in lost royalties. Actually, I have no idea in the macro sense if the much larger # of authors who don't have those hardcover sales and are gaining on the mass market end. But what fun is a blog if you can't make blanket statements that can't be substantiated as firm hard fact that everyone should quote on the internet for sixteen years to come.]

To sum up: royalty statements come in, huge amounts of e-book sales, publishers doing well and many though by now means all authors doing better, too.

This is not the death of publishing.

With two caveats.

1. A situation where an Amazon can set the price level for e-books as a loss leader, they have the ability to bring the entire publishing industry to its heels. They can kill publishing in the blink of an eye no matter how much of it they decide to do for themselves. So, for that matter, could a court decision that declares the agency model an illegal restraint of trade.

2. People will lose places to buy print books faster than their actual desire to buy them. One thing’s for sure, the migration to e-book sales isn’t good for businesses that revolve around the sale of printed books. I think I worry more than anything about this. We could look back five years from now and view 2011 as the final flowering of a dual print/e-book marketplace that will dry up like a three-week-old bouquet into a shriveled e-only marketplace in which vastly fewer total numbers of books are being sold.

Putting aside those worst case scenarios, if the publishing industry isn’t dying of e-book, it’s certainly changing, and changing by the day. Tobias Buckell just kickstarted his 4th Xenowealth novel. Jim Hines has self-published electronically an earlier novel and some short story collections. Things like this leave a reduced role JABberwocky.

I worry and publishers worry about how we remain relevant in this changing marketplace. It’s one reason why we have a limited but growing e-book program at JABberwocky, helping our clients monetize their work in ways that weren’t possible a few years ago. But it isn’t “dying” that I use as the adjective there, it’s “changing.”


Myke said...

This is . . . uh . . . encouraging . . . sort of.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

I have nothing against ebooks, but I am concerned about having the option of going to a book seller (in person) to buy a book. Going on line is fine if you know what book you want, but I like to look at the book before I buy it.

Rex Kusler said...

I have trouble finding books I might like to buy. The way I used to do it was to spend lots of time browsing every title in every section of the bookstores I was interested in. All the bookstores here have closed. And I can’t browse every title on Amazon. There needs to be some sort of branding in place—maybe websites that list recommended books in every genre. After paper books are all but gone, the biggest publishing houses might be nothing more than a small suite of offices in a city like Cleveland.

Moses Siregar III said...

We just discussed this blog post on Adventures in SciFi Publishing (podcast). Our next episode will feature Joshua himself talking with me about the article (we recorded an interview at the World Fantasy Convention 2011).

Moses Siregar III said...

Here's the new podcast with Joshua himself talking about this blog post. Thanks for speaking with me, Joshua!